Colour Chart at the Tate

Went with S to the Tate today to see Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 to Today, an exhibition developed by MoMa to explore the idea that during the 20th century a group of artists started to see paint as coming in readymade colours, rather than being mixed on an artist’s palette and conforming to certain artistic rules.

Colour Chart takes the commercial colour chart as its point of departure, addressing the impact of mass-produced colour on the art of the past sixty years. It is the first major exhibition devoted to the shifting moment in twentieth-century art when artists began to perceive colour as ‘readymade’ rather than as a vehicle of spiritual or emotional content. Midway through the twentieth century, long-held convictions regarding the spiritual truth or scientific validity of particular colours gave way to an excitement about colour as a standardised commercial product. The artistry of mixing pigments was eclipsed by Frank Stella’s “straight out of the can; it can’t get better than that.”

However, rather than the feelings of joy, sensuousness, ecstasy, rage, fear or whatever that colour invariably evokes,  the overall feel of the exhibition was dry and academic.  It seemed to document, as Justin Bell remarked in an essay in The Guardian:

a late-20th-century mania – the zany, obsessional methodologies that artists embraced in their zeal to have done with self-expression. Richter resolutely laying down his chart of 4096 Colours is far exceeded by On Kawara, who each day for more than 40 years has lettered the date on a new canvas covered with a new blend of acrylic. The rigorous shades into the ridiculous with François Morellet in 1962 getting his family to read him every number in the phone book: if it was odd, he painted a little square of scarlet; if even, cobalt – he had 40,000 squares to fill. And [of] …so many subsequent postmodernist projects, down to Damien Hirst’s insistently derivative spot paintings.
Seeing the light: Julian Bell

Or as Adrian Searle commented, also in The Guardian:

One problem with the exhibition was always that it was about examples of things (artists, media, manners, approaches) and samples of colour, rather than a show that dealt with colour itself. It is somehow slightly bloodless. …The real problem, perversely, is one of excess: it feels as if there’s too much colour everywhere for much of it to have an impact. Once you get past the huge, searing Sol LeWitt wall painting on the ground floor, the show turns into optical sludge, a sort of artistic makeup counter.

Morellet let his local telephone directory dictate the chromatic composition of this two-colour painting. Working through the columns of telephone numbers, Morellet translated each odd digit to red and each even digit to blue. He worked steadily across the canvas from left to right, top to bottom, painting each square with the colour his code had randomly designated for it. It took nearly seven thousand phone numbers to fill his canvas. [Tate]

Richter began making colour chart paintings in 1966. He recalls noticing a colour chart one day and realising that ‘it looks like a painting. It’s wonderful.’ The charts provided anonymous and impersonal source material, a way for Richter to disassociate colour from any traditional, descriptive, symbolic or expressive end. Returning to colour charts in the 1970s, Richter changed his focus from the readymade to the conceptual system, developing mathematical procedures for mixing colours and chance operations for their placement. He said: ‘I found it interesting to tie chance to a totally rigid order.’ [Tate]

Hyena Stomp is part of a series of large paintings known as Concentric Squares and Mitred Mazes. With this series Stella continued to use the same Benjamin Moore alkyd house paint he used in earlier works, using the six primary and secondary colours in this work. The title Hyena Stomp comes from a track by the American jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. Stella was thinking about syncopation while working on the painting: the alternation of colours appearing to have an irregular but rhythmic pattern.[Tate]

This eight-foot-square painting is actually sixty-four one-foot-square paintings, individually painted and stretched. Kelly’s radical innovation here was prompted by practicality: living in a fishing village in southern France, he did not have the space to store or the money to ship a large work. The colours’ arrangements correspond to the coloured squares in a small collage that Kelly made ‘very, very quickly, without thinking’ with leftovers from the series of Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance. [Tate]

Zobop is made with lengths of industrial vinyl tape applied in concentric bands that take their form from the perimeter of the architectural space. Lambie uses the standard colours the tape comes in, often leaving the final selection of which colour goes where to whoever installs the piece in the gallery space. He is indifferent to compositional decision making and the mark of his own hand: ‘The system makes the work.’ [Tate]

Time lapse video of Jim Lambie’s Zobop being installed


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